2020 Year In Review: 6 Key School Food Policy Moments

2020 is coming to an end, and we’re among the many reflecting on what a challenging year it has been. More than a million lives were lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, continued violence against Black communities took the national spotlight, and amid it all, activists and organizers continued to work toward a more just and equitable world, in some cases facing greater obstacles than ever before.

As we close out the year, we want to take a moment to reflect on key school food policy moments of the year and recognize the progress advocates have made. We hope you’ll take this opportunity to read up on what happened in the past year and how some of these issues will carry into 2021. 

School food is essential—whether or not school is in session

As the pandemic closed schools nationwide, the role school meals play in nourishing kids’ bodies and minds became more vividly clear. Since day one of school closures, school nutrition professionals across the country have been going above and beyond to feed kids and families—sometimes risking their own lives.

Congress and the USDA responded by allowing schools to provide free school meals for all kids through the end of the 2020-2021 school year. While school meals waivers issued by the USDA have helped schools adopt new service models and safety guidelines, we know that school meal programs are facing huge financial shortfalls, given the pandemic’s impact on meal participation rates and increased pandemic-related expenses. 

Hard-won nutrition assistance in the COVID-19 relief bills

Due to the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, we saw rates of child food insecurity rise to levels unprecedented in modern history—about 14 million children are not getting enough to eat. Furthermore, the impacts of systemic racism mean there is a huge racial disparity in hunger rates. Congress spent much of the year working on COVID-19 relief bills such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act, which included many critical supports for families and kids, like Pandemic EBT.

However, it is clear that we need more government actions—like a boost in SNAP benefits—and we are disappointed that Congress has not yet passed a much-needed next relief package. As of this writing, Congress is working on a bipartisan compromise bill that we hope will pass soon, with much needed food and nutrition provisions.

#VoteForSchoolMeals and a new President-elect

In case you somehow missed it, there was an election! Record numbers of votes were cast in this election, despite the impacts of the pandemic. FoodCorps communities mobilized to #VoteForSchoolFood by sharing our first ever Voter Guide—a tool designed to empower voters to learn about policies that affect kids’ health and wellbeing.

After days of counting votes, we have a new President-elect: Joe Biden. The incoming Biden-Harris administration will have a lot on their plate in their first 100 days in office, and we look forward to serving as a partner in efforts to ensure every kid has access to nutritious meals and build a more just food system together with communities. 

Child Nutrition Reauthorization went without renewal, again

Child Nutrition Reauthorization, or CNR—a process when Congress updates the laws governing many of the federal child nutrition programs like school meals, summer meals, and WIC—gained some momentum at the beginning of the year. Numerous important marker bills relating to CNR were introduced (check out this blog post by our partners at the National Farm to School Network to learn more). But CNR quickly went on the backburner as COVID-19 relief and elections became top priorities for Congress this year.

CNR generally happens every five years, but 10 years have passed since the last CNR—the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It is still possible that Congress will take up CNR in the new year, and we look forward to working with advocates to continue laying the groundwork to strengthen these critical programs.

Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act of 2020 

At the beginning of the year, food education advocates celebrated an important milestone when Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the Food and Nutrition Education in Schools Act of 2020. FoodCorps partnered with the lawmakers to develop this bill, which proposes a pilot program to create food and nutrition educator positions in schools, expanding hands-on nutrition learning opportunities for kids. The goal of this marker bill is to be incorporated into a larger CNR bill. 

Trump administration’s continued attacks on nutrition programs  

Unfortunately, we also saw continued attacks on vital nutrition programs from the Trump administration—from its attempt to take billions of dollars away from school meals and SNAP, to proposed changes to school meals regulations that, if finalized, could undermine kids’ health. Nutrition advocates are already mobilizing to call on the incoming Biden administration to reverse or halt those harmful efforts.

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